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We’ve talked extensively about the benefits a Platforms approach to Design for Manufacture and Assembly (P-DfMA) can bring to a construction project. In Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030, published in September 2021, the IPA has announced that the Government will mandate a platforms approach within two years for social infrastructure.
The benefits of the platforms approach include cost savings, increased safety on-site, better quality, and more sustainable buildings. So, what does a plausible future look like in practice, if the government and private sector adopt this way of working? A good illustration of this can be achieved by looking at the lifecycle of a construction project from design to assembly. We can then explore what is technically achievable with construction Platforms, as well as what this looks like in a near-future state. All of the technologies and initiatives we’ll outline here are underpinned by, or based around, the idea of using standardised, repeatable components. This convergence of components and processes unlocks the true power of digital, data and manufacturing.
At Bryden Wood, we have developed digital configurators as early-stage design tools. This new construction technology enables a much faster design process than traditional methods. Our PRiSM and SEiSMIC design apps are already in use for housing and school design, respectively. We have also created an algorithmic, computational design system called Rapid Engineering Model (REM) for Highways England. REM enables the early design stages of Smart Motorways Programme (SMP) schemes to be designed automatically. In addition, we’ve devised a similar, digital framework for Network Rail. This variety of uses demonstrates the broad capabilities of these digital design tools, which are beneficial not only for buildings, but also for linear infrastructure on a greater, geospatial, country-wide level.
Our experience here tells us that rather than designing things from scratch in the future, more and more work will be done using algorithmic design. For example, PRiSM allows us to generate a design very quickly. We can then use a range of simulation tools to optimise and refine the design, in order to deliver the best possible solution for a specific site. We are able to consider a variety of architectural and environmental factors: energy balance, people movements, overshadowing, architectural aesthetics, and placemaking. This gives us much better, and much more considered, designs at site level.
Additionally, our work on REM teaches us that if the algorithm creates an unusual outcome, the solution is to fix the ruleset, not the algorithmic model. Over time, this creates vastly improved results, as the rules and algorithmic designs get better and better. These results have allowed us to visualise and assess both the risks and opportunities of a smart motorway at the earliest planning stages. Consequently, it now takes a few days to do what used to take months.
Eventually, we believe these design apps will start to link up and talk to each other, forming a linked digital ecosystem. As such, this kind of broad, architectural master planning will not be done subjectively, by people, but rather will occur as a result of millions of iterations of potential placements. These placements will be optimised to create the best possible solutions for all of our major functions: education, commercial spaces, residential, and industry. This type of optimisation will happen simultaneously and in conjunction with the same process being applied to the supporting infrastructure; road, rail, hyperloops, power and water, and other transport and utilities.
We sometimes hear people express concern that Modern Methods of Construction will be the death of good design. On the contrary, we believe construction Platforms and DfMA will deliver better, more holistically designed, individual assets. Not cookie-cutter buildings. A key aspect of a Platforms approach to design is the notion that we standardise at component level, but allow complete freedom at asset level. A standardised kit of parts, coupled with the use of machines to eliminate repetitive tasks, will give architects and designers more time to spend exploring outcomes and adding value. This will, in turn, allow them to create refined, client-specific designs which are every bit as aesthetically pleasing and unique as buildings designed by traditional methods. We also believe there will be a shift in where we think creativity is best placed within the architectural process. Our Creative Technologies team - the vast majority of whom are architects - know that developing the algorithm and computational design is as much a part of the creative design process as sketching something.
We have already seen our PRiSM to Platforms digital workflow deliver tremendous improvements to the procurement and payment process. As soon as we have a design we like, we can instantly generate a data model. This information gives us all the bill of materials quantities we’ll need for the project, and from this data set we can also create the BIM models (ie. the BIM model is one ‘view’ of the data set, not the other way round). What’s more, as we move further into a construction Platforms space, we will increasingly see the data set of a design able to talk directly to the manufacturing marketplace. This means we’ll be able to access instantly both the cost and availability of a project’s components. For example, Xometry, a company in the United States, is already being used by major manufacturers. Xometry sends the digital file of the required components out to its distributed network of pre-qualified manufacturers all over the USA. They then get a price. Once the customer is happy with that price, they bring the components together. This allows them to tap into an enormous network of individual specialists, all through one, single website.
The Construction Innovation Hub is an initiative backed by the UK government, with a remit to drive innovation in the construction industry. The Hub is working to bring manufacturing expertise to construction. As a result, we’re now starting to see concepts like Advanced Production Quality Planning (APQP) coming into the industry. This framework is how manufacturing ensures the consistency of products, and it’s also how they track their progress. So, where will this end up? Ultimately, we believe you will be able to get a price instantly from a vast, distributed network of small suppliers, as you develop your construction Platform model. These suppliers will also be publishing details of their pipelines and capabilities, enabling you to plan your project precisely. Moreover, as all of these standardised components will be inexpensive, we don’t believe we’ll be costing solely on pure, capital costs. There will also be a focus on other factors: the carbon footprint of the individual manufacturer, what they spend on R&D, staff welfare, and so on. Consequently, we will be looking for added value from our manufacturers, and this will change how we think about the procurement process going forwards.
In fact, we think it’s likely the procurement process will suddenly become more akin to a model like Amazon. That is to say, payments will be instant and delivery onto site will happen automatically. Additionally, these deliveries will be pre-coordinated with site activities and made by autonomous vehicles. This will make sure that components arrive exactly when needed and that deliveries place the least amount of stress on local infrastructure.
At Bryden Wood, we’ve started an initiative called the Framework for Robotics and Automated Construction (F.R.A.C.). The purpose is to examine how we begin to design for automation, as well as to determine what level of automation is appropriate on-site. We’ve also been exploring automation in construction at component level. This is done via our work with Landsec and Easi Space at our Construction Platforms Research Centre in Ropley. This would include approaches like laser cutting components, and the use of autonomous reach stackers to place components.
As we move forward with automation in construction, we won’t need as many people on site. The operatives who are there will be working much more safely, with greater productivity. They are likely to be part of multi-skilled gangs, trained with the know-how to assemble a whole range of components, as opposed to each individual having a single trade. These teams will be able to build a hospital one day, a school the next, and a set of apartments the day after. Each project will use the same, standardised components. We hope that giving people the skills to perform a range of tasks, versus one repetitive task, will also lead to greater job satisfaction and productivity, as it has in the manufacturing industry.
One of the struggles facing traditional construction is the fact that every building is a prototype. This means, even if (and it’s a big ‘if’) you have some structured, operational data, it only tells you about that particular asset type. You won’t learn anything about the next building you build, as it will also be a prototype. Construction Platform design unlocks this problem with its consistency of components. This uniformity of build means there is suddenly something meaningful to do with operational data. Learning how the components perform, or how the facade systems are working, can help refine the components and make a better asset next time. This standardisation at component level creates the ability to put a feedback loop in place. Furthermore, it opens up an opportunity for machine learning and artificial intelligence to come into construction, as they require vast data sets to operate. If we want to get into AI in construction, and even digital twins, we have to put the building blocks in place now. Construction Platform design could accelerate the capture of data needed to make this a reality.
When a built asset comes to the end of its life, a construction Platforms approach is appealing because it gives us sustainable options for redeployment and reuse. Automatically knowing the provenance of a built asset allows us to get into a circular economy. Equally, we could also take components from one asset, and then use them for a different asset type in another part of the world. This is very appealing, as reusing is even more sustainable than recycling.
However, it’s worth stating that this is a huge simplification; that the true meaning of ‘circular economy’ is phenomenally complex (especially when we’re considering a 60-year plus period – how well do we believe someone in 1960 would have predicted the market in 2020?) This is a topic in its own right that we’ll explore another time – but what we can say for now is that construction Platforms seem like a sensible way of facilitating this approach.
None of the challenges present in getting the industry to adopt a construction Platforms approach are technical. The majority of objections are linked to cultural mindset factors. These include issues like insurance warranties, intellectual property, and risk allocation in construction. We’re not suggesting traditional construction isn’t risky. We know from government data that almost 10% of their spending on construction is allocated to risk. This hasn’t changed despite many years of operating in this way. However, it’s a risk that is, to some extent, understood. That said, construction Platform design does help to change that risk profile dramatically and to reduce the amount of risk on a construction project.
If we take another look at what the UK government is doing through the Construction Innovation Hub, we can see that they are looking to aggregate construction demand across different departments. By harmonising the standards and requirements, and developing standardised components, they are creating a huge, central body of knowledge. This library of common solutions will, in turn, mean that on each project, none of the construction design work necessarily needs to be done from scratch. Combining standardisation with the digital design tools that create better-coordinated models and data-rich designs, along with program cost and supply chain data embedded in the model, is powerful. Add in the Hub’s work on introducing APQP, and we will get a level of consistency into components, which will deliver a real benefit. We believe having this greater provenance over our components addresses the question of warranties and insurance, and creates a much lower risk profile on a construction project. What’s more, the idea of pre-prototyping components before we get to site should mean there is very little left to learn. Ultimately, this creates far fewer opportunities for snags and delays.
Changing the risk profile of construction should unlock investment into the industry. As things stand, we know from talking to funders that construction is seen as the riskiest investment option by far. Conversely, we know there’s a great deal of interest in financing clean technology, so there’s a lot of money going into an associated industry. Construction Platform design offers a huge opportunity, because if we could demonstrate a consistent ability to deliver things to price and budget, investors would view construction differently. As a result, this could see investors flooding towards construction, as they would get a healthy return on their investment. There’s also the potential for the creation of a virtuous circle, whereby investment boosts spending on construction, which creates jobs and skills. This would have a bigger, beneficial impact on society.
An increase in investment should also free up more money for research and development. Construction has famously low investment in R&D, which increases the risk profile. As most projects are currently prototypes, there is very little opportunity to test something out before it becomes a live project. On our current project for Landsec, we’ve witnessed the benefits of prototyping everything in advance at our testing facility in Ropley. This certainty from testing should continue to reduce the risk profile, making us more attractive to investors.
Since mandating BIM back in 2011, the UK government has played a crucial role in the effort to turn a Platform approach to construction into a reality. There’s been a real consistency to their approach and they have continued to focus their spending power to promote Modern Methods of Construction. Moreover, the Infrastructure Projects Authority (IPA) who, to some extent, hold the purse strings around infrastructure spending, have also been pushing the construction Platforms agenda.
In Asia, we’ve seen the Singapore government encouraging ‘Prefabricated Prefinished Volumetric Construction’ (PPVC), and we’ve also seen a focus on Modular Integrated Construction (MIC) in Hong Kong. Both markets have geographical constraints. Singapore is very land-constrained and has limited ‘internal’ modular manufacturing capacity, but imports have good access to the Malaysian and Indonesian markets. On the other hand, Hong Kong has potential access to Chinese manufacturers. As such, forms of modular will no doubt be part of the future solution.
In the US, there have been several conferences about ‘industrialized construction,’ and players like Katerra and Factory_OS are developing their own vertically integrated offers.
Overall, there is a global recognition that a more manufacturing-like approach is needed. ‘Volumetric’ seems to be the first and most obvious starting point, but we believe there is a need for a wider and more sophisticated ecosystem of DfMA. There may be parallels with what happened with BIM. The UK was the first to mandate Building Information Modelling and our standards became quite widely adopted, or were at least used as a starting point, globally. It will be interesting to see if construction Platform design has a similar global appeal, once people have understood the limitations of modular.
COVID-19 has simply accelerated this journey, or accentuated the need to move forwards at speed. As a result, the UK government is now looking to double down on the current plan to develop construction Platforms and to make things happen even more quickly. This should send a strong message to the construction industry. This shift is coming. We've already seen other sectors - entertainment, retail, music - being disrupted over the last 25 years. Rather than resisting the process, the big players of the construction industry need to acknowledge the reality of where we’re heading. They should be evaluating the types of opportunities this will create and figuring out how to shape themselves in order to take advantage of those opportunities. They need to work out how to address the vast, global market that’s on the way. We are now starting to see people considering these issues.
From the aging demographic to the impact of COVID-19, the challenges facing the construction industry have never been starker. This reality, coupled with a climate crisis the construction industry is significantly contributing to (producing 39% of global carbon emissions), means that we are faced with an urgent need for action. The good news is that all of the enablers needed to take the industry forward are already in place. The construction Platform movement is gaining momentum and we hope it could be our current reality within five to ten years. It’s entirely achievable, so long as the industry decides that the time has come to take action, and that this is the direction we want to move. If it’s not, then why not?
To listen to Jaimie Johnston talking about the future of Platform Construction and DfMA in more detail, listen to Episode 2 of our Built Environment Matters podcast here
Or, you can download and read our e-book on Platforms here